[How Do We Know the World Series] Part IV: What are the limits of identity and positionality in the decolonisation debate?

by Grace Ese-osa Idahosa

This short piece addresses the issue of the limiting role of identity and positionality on the extent of individuals’ contribution to the decolonisation process in institutions. Focusing on universities in South Africa (SA), it interrogates the role of identity and social positions in the decolonisation and knowledge production process. It asks to what extent factors like race, class, gender and sexuality affect an individual’s commitment and contributions to the decolonisation process?

Such examination has implications for how we understand and approach the politics of identity and representation, knowledge production, citation and curriculum development in the discourse of decolonisation. It provides an alternative to thinking about the way we see the ‘other’, the boundaries we set on identity and representation and the assumption that identity can determine a decolonised pedagogy.

One issue that arose from the 2015/2016 Rhodes must fall protest was the limits to the contribution White South Africans could make to the debate on decolonisation and issues on, and about, Africa. It was argued that White individuals could not legitimately contribute to the decolonisation process. This argument filtered into the production of knowledge, (the rights and legitimacy of White academics to teach and write about Africa, and what types of texts were prescribed was questioned). It also filtered into the politics of representation where the decolonisation process meant the inclusion of Black academics and scholarly texts into the university and curriculum.

This argument assumes that as individuals, we would always want to preserve the vested self-interest endowed upon us by our social positions (Archer 1995) — and by virtue of these positions we have blind-spots (Blakeley 2007), making it nearly impossible for us to see the problems with that comfortable position. After all, if we do not experience discomfort, then it is highly unlikely that we would question that structure/context. In this instance, the result of such an assumption is the assertion that White people cannot contribute to decolonisation because they cannot see or understand what is wrong with the current social relations. Like fish in water, the relations of domination appear natural to them (see Idahosa 2016); thus, they cannot possibly know how to contribute to decolonisation. This implies that, for instance, it is unlikely that an individual who occupies a privileged group would teach a decolonised curriculum and produce decolonised knowledge.

While the argument relating to the role blind-spots and interests may play in an individual’s interest in taking action to effect change are valid, there is need to exercise caution with this approach because it gives too much power to social/structural positions and leaves little room for choice, reflexivity and agency. Such a position also assumes an essentialist notion of the self and would mean, for instance, that Blacks are better decolonisation candidates and only Black authored texts are useful in decolonising the curriculum. Hence, bell hooks (1999) cautions against the assumption that factors like race and gender can determine an individual’s commitments. Simkins (2015) further argues that because identities are socially constructed and interpreted, they are fragile, prone to essentialisms, and susceptible the reproduction of the very oppression they seek to remove. The implication of these arguments is that while structural factors like race, gender, sexuality and ethnicity do play a role in conditioning an individual’s choices, it cannot be the sole determinant of action and we cannot assume they are a sufficient determinant that the individual will be a change agent. To do so would be to lock individuals in their bodies and identities and strip them of their agency and their ability to formulate their choices and decisions based on their interactions with their environment.

While I agree with the vital importance of ensuring the representativeness of previously excluded bodies as legitimate owners and conveyors of knowledge, achieving substantive change must move beyond demographic inclusion and representation either of Black academics or texts. Freire (2006, 56) writes: “if the goal of the oppressed is to become fully human, they will not achieve their goal by merely reversing the terms of the contradiction, by simply changing poles”. My contention is that we cannot determine an individual’s politics and ability to contribute to change based on their social positions and identities as this forecloses the possibility of agency, critical engagement, reflexivity and the development of consciousness (Idahosa & Vincent, 2018, 2019[1]). It also runs the risk of replacing one form of oppression with another and silencing those who have a real commitment to change.

In making this argument, I do not suggest that all members of privileged groups are capable of contributing to decolonisation, neither do I suggest that all members of oppressed groups are capable of effecting or contributing to decolonisation. My argument, however, calls for caution in the assumption that an individual’s identity can determine that their pedagogy, scholarship and contributions to knowledge will be decolonized. Scholars like Sandra Lee Bartky (1997), Susan Babbitt (1997) and Jean Paul Sartre (1984) have highlighted the importance of not only recognizing one’s oppression but also recognizing an objective lack and envisioning the possibly of changing it, in deciding to engage in decolonising acts.

While experience does play a role in one’s ability to understand and identify those issues that perpetuate oppressive relations, it is possible for those who are critically engaged and reflective of their position vis-à-vis their social context to bring about change. Although interests, positionality and identity are central to an individual’s experience, the role of reflexivity and engagement needs to also be considered (Idahosa and Vincent, 2019). Thus, while identity and representation are central to building a sense of community and belonging, it is dangerous when used to justify exclusion and intimidation. A way out of this would be to focus on providing the conditions to enable the development of critical consciousness and foster engagement – rather than silencing or delegitimising certain groups.

[1],3 Idahosa, G.E and Vincent, L. 2019. ‘Enabling transformation through critical engagement and reflexivity: a case study of South African academics’. Higher Education Research and Development. In Press.

Dr Grace Ese-osa Idahosa  is a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg. Her research interest is located within the field of agency and transformation and seeks to answer the question of how and under what conditions individuals enable transformation amid limiting/enabling contexts.

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One Reply to “[How Do We Know the World Series] Part IV: What are the limits of identity and positionality in the decolonisation debate?”

  1. A very thought provoking article which makes me think about the various ways through which we can de-compartmentalize our existence from the colonial norms of socio-cultural legitimacy, exclusion and inclusion.

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